A Protestant, two Catholics and a Mormon walk into a bar…
Comedy. It’s that elusive and indefinable thing that makes us laugh. We cannot define it, but we know it when we see it (or read it). Senses of humor are as varied as our genetic codes. One man’s outrageously amusing is another’s disgusting tripe, and it takes a talented author indeed to conquer the unforgiving jungle of what is “funny” and unite their readership under the banner of “this is hilarious!”
Comedy wears many hats. There is no one type of humor that is superior to another. Comedy can be high brow or low, slapstick or deadpan, ironic or satirical. But underlying the desire to make one’s audience laugh is a deeper intention. Authors often use comedy to change perception, to educate, and to expose the ridiculousness of our culture.
Humor is used to slip under the radar and engage a reader before they know they’re involved. A comedy may shock, disgust, provoke, outrage, or discomfit its readers. Like emotional word pictures, it is the job of a comedic piece to be relatable and familiar in such a way that it provokes a strong emotional reaction. And that provoked reaction is not necessarily positive, but rather has much to do with the intention of the author.
It is under the banner of comedy that so many tried and true “laws “of writing are bent, broken, and outright ignored. Want your narrator to speak to your audience? Want to rant and preach? Want to teach an object lesson and be obvious about it? Want to over-reference pop-culture or have your characters speak with outrageous accents? How about overuse adverbs and adjectives? Want to toss in a heavy dose of pastiche? How about flashback to your heart’s content? All can be acceptable under the guise of comedy. The reason for this is that style, presentation, and construction are all a part of the humor. In this genre, these elements hold equal importance with characterization, narrative, plot, and technical considerations. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? Well, that’s because it is. 🙂
Comedy is, by its very nature, unruly and rarely stays in its lane, often crossing genre and appearing where you least expect it. Comedy can be based in thought, characterization, dialogue, situation, plot, perspective, or creative combinations of these. It is made of tried and true elements such as: wit, sarcasm, irony, mockery, spoofing, ridicule, misdirection, outrageous scenarios and characterizations, exaggeration, crossing of taboos, and shock value.
It could be reasonably argued that comedy is the cruelest of all genres, since it encompasses everything we were taught not to do by our mothers. Want to lie? Awesome! How about steal? Cool. Make fun of others? Go for it! Have your characters act in awful, morally corrupt, and unredeemable ways? You’ve just earned two thumbs up.
Authors of comedy tap into the dark desires and hidden intentions in the heart of man in a way that is socially safe. While we may be too polite to speak those sarcastic thoughts in our heads, there is something very appealing about experiencing a character do, think and say those things that we just can’t.
Comedy is cathartic. Out of all the genres, this one holds the biggest potential to entertain.
Some common types of comedy that are seen in the literary world are: parody, satire, dark humor, comedies of errors and manners, farce, and burlesque.
The difficulty of crafting a well-received comedy is found in the intrinsic lack of boundaries in the genre. Because comedy makes its playground in the sacred, the outrageous and the cruelties of sarcasm, wit and mockery, it’s easy to overstep. Authors of comedy stand on the line between offense and entertainment. Writing comedy is a delicate balance between taboo, controversy, and good instincts.
Literary humor has the added difficulty of a distinct lack of interaction. The humor is flung into a vacuum and experienced in the privacy of a reader’s mind. Unlike their comedian counterparts, there is no audience to give an author an immediate reaction. There is no body language to read so you will know if you are pushing it too far. Because of this, writers of comedy become predictors of reaction and almost psychic in their understanding of what their readers find funny. But this is honed only through experience.
Like every genre, comedy has elements that are common and expected in the genre in general and others that are central to specific subgenres. But there is no formula for just how these elements should be balanced. This provides the author with much freedom, but it also provides something of a blind path to follow. Whether the ratio of chosen elements works is determined in the mind of the reader. It is the job of the author to craft the story and characters in such a way that it does—fingers crossed.
The key to writing good comedy is a keen sense of pacing and timing. I can’t stress these enough. The arrangement of the story, the delivery of the dialogue and the enfolding of the characterization all matter.
More than with any other genre, it is imperative that writers of comedy have a good relationship with their editors and pre-readers. An editor that works with authors of comedy has to understand the pacing and delivery of the humor along with the intricacies of character development and technical editing. A bad editor can ruin a good comedy. It is the least forgiving and resilient of all the genres when improperly handled.